The Great Debate Over the Origin of the Ice Cream Sundae
Drizzling chocolate sauce over ice cream and topping it with a cherry seems like such a simple, intuitive decision that it’s no wonder multiple places claim to be the first to do it. But who made the first true ice cream sundae, and who came up with that unique name? Those are questions that food aficionados have been wrestling with for more than a century.
Several cities claim to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, among them New Orleans, New York, Buffalo, and Cleveland. But the strongest claims fall to three much smaller locales—including two that have been at each other’s throats for years over the matter.
The earliest claim belongs to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, located 40 miles southeast of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. On a summer Sunday in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners, at the request of a vacationing customer, reportedly poured chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Berners said in later interviews that he didn’t think the concoction would taste good—which is understandable, since soda was the common accompaniment to ice cream at the time. Luckily for Berners, he was dead wrong.
After savoring the chocolate-laden concoction, he began serving it every Sunday thereafter for a nickel. He also mixed in other ingredients, like bananas, nuts, raspberry sauce, and puffed rice, cooking up creations with colorful names like the Jennie Flip and the Flora Dora. Because of the significance of the last day of the week, Berners called his chocolate and ice cream treat a “Sunday,” later changing the name to “sundae” at the suggestion of a customer.
Residents of Two Rivers, who today number around 2000, are fiercely proud of their contribution to America’s dessert menus. The town’s visitors center houses a working replica of Berners’s soda fountain, where you can stop in for your own Two Rivers sundae. There’s also a plaque and various references throughout the town naming it the “official” birthplace of the ice cream sundae.
A certain crunchy college town in upstate New York, though, begs to differ with that designation. Officials in Ithaca, New York claim that on Sunday, April 3, 1892, the Reverend John Scott of the local Unitarian Church dropped by the Platt & Colt Pharmacy after services to enjoy a bowl of ice cream with the shop’s owner, Chester Platt. Instead of the usual unadorned scoops of vanilla, Platt decided to add cherry syrup and a candied cherry to each serving of ice cream. Platt named his creation the “Cherry Sunday” in honor of the day and his most holy company. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, he advertised the dish in the local newspaper, and soon after introduced a chocolate and a strawberry Sunday. He eventually changed the name of his dish to “sundae” to avoid offending the good reverend and the church.
Folks in Ithaca believe their story trumps Two Rivers’ for one big reason: evidence. Several years ago, a pair of intrepid local high schoolers rooted around in the town archives and came up with a solid paper trail. This includes the 1892 newspaper advertisement (believed to have been placed the day after Platt first served his Cherry Sunday), a newspaper article about Platt’s Sundays, a letter from the shop’s clerk, and a store ledger proving Platt had all the ingredients necessary.
Game, set, match for Ithaca—right?
Well, not quite. Two Rivers stands by its story, despite Ithaca’s seemingly foolproof case. Their argument: Just because they lack hard evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. With both sides firmly dug in, a civic (albeit good-humored) spat has developed between the towns. Each has bought an ad in the other’s newspaper stating its case. Officials have written letters back and forth over the years. Both towns’ websites tell their side while also taking shots at the other. Two Rivers even issued a cease-and-desist order to Ithaca regarding their sundae story.
Residents, meanwhile, are quick to sound off about their respective first-ness.
“Everybody knows Two Rivers invented it,” one resident told The New York Times back in 2006. “That’s why we’re all so fat here. We eat a lot of them.”
A few years ago, Ithaca’s mayor received more than 100 postcards from Two Rivers’ residents, including one from “The Ghost of Ed Berners.” Two Rivers also sent a DVD of citizens singing a sundae “fight song.” In response, Ithaca came up with its own song called "Sundae Love," a barbershop-style ballad set to the tune of "Moon River."
Two Rivers, always in denial
The story you compile won’t play.
Your sign maker, a truth faker
Without sundae proof, your claims melted away.
While Ithaca and Two Rivers continue to duke it out for sundae supremacy, a third town quietly makes its case. In 1890, the town of Evanston, Illinois passed a ban prohibiting ice cream sodas on Sunday. This “blue law” came about through the influence of the Methodist church, which wasn’t pleased with the crowds the local soda fountains drew on the Sabbath. The soda fountains and drug stores, in response, came up with a clever workaround: the “Sunday soda.” As Richard Lloyd Jones, a former newspaper editor who grew up in Evanston at the time, wrote:
“Some ingenious confectioners and drug store operators in ‘Heavenston,’ obeying the law, served ice cream with the syrup of your choice without the soda. Thereby complying with the law. They did not serve ice cream sodas. They served sodas without soda on Sunday. This sodaless soda was the Sunday soda.”
Born out of necessity, the Sunday soda nevertheless underwent a name change so as not to further offend the church. Evanston’s ice cream sundae became a local hit and quickly spread across the country. Or so Evanstonians say. Ithaca, Jones writes, likely got the idea from a Northwestern student returning home to upstate New York, or from a Cornell student from Evanston.
The other origin stories from around the country are as colorful as they are numerous. They include a druggist named Sonntag (Swedish for “Sunday”), a broken soda machine, a pastor with a sweet tooth, and a demanding little girl with a craving for chocolate syrup.
According to Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains, the name “sundae” almost certainly developed as a way to avoid offending the church. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to say anything with certainty about the ice cream sundae’s origins. Part of the difficulty is in sorting through the various accounts. There’s also the question of what really makes a sundae? Is it the combination of ice cream, chocolate, and cherry? Or should there be chopped nuts, as well? And what about whipped cream?
Luckily, a definitive answer isn’t required to enjoy one.